photos by Rae Huo
text by Liza Simon
In the beginning, there was the palaoa, a whale’s tooth hung on a necklace of woven hair, an amulet reserved for the alii. The palaoa set the course for Island-style adornment: Hawaii’s earliest artists used material formed in nature’s incubator—shell, bone, coral, feathers, fiber—to craft their jewelry. With new immigrants to the Islands came new materials—jade, gold, pearls, glass, silver—and new aesthetics born from different cultural impulses. But the newcomers, too, ultimately bowed to tropical color and form: the waxy geometry of sunburst heliconia, the kaleidoscopic hues of an inshore reef.
Today, artisans throughout the Islands channel a spirit of place. Some are fine artists, some hearken to craft traditions, but all have mastered the art of making small creations into talismans that connect our Islands to admiring eyes from around the world. On these pages, meet six Hawaii jewelers: a bone carver, two beading wonders, a pearl artist, a trash transformer, a seashell queen and a gold star. Their body adornments appeal to vastly different audiences—but whether a piece is an artifact of Polynesian tradition or an ingenious comment on contemporary living, such portable badges of Island sensibility have a way of drawing the jeweler and wearer into the same inspired fold.